Successful bulls eye centre dart on a target
ATD Blog

Behavior Change and Darts?

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Mark Hortsman, author and management consultant, states, “People and their behaviors are what deliver results to your organization. Not systems, not processes, not computers, not machines.” While we may agree, when organizations are faced with change, do our actions reflect this quote?

Although we know behavior and change are intertwined, we don’t typically apply behavioral science when planning or executing change. Traditional change management has taught us to focus on a tight process for managing change using templates and tools as opposed to working from desired human behaviors. After all, it’s less complicated to change systems than humans.

Templates and Tools Alone Won’t Change Behavior

While necessary to provide the structure and controls for change, change management processes and templates do little to change human behavior. If you don’t believe me, simply check Google for references to “change failure” (more than 200 million search results pop up).

Human behavior changes that emerge from traditional change management activities in the workplace often aren’t the behaviors most necessary to deliver the intended outcomes because the key human behaviors weren’t initially identified for the change effort.

Make Applying Behavioral Data Easy

You know more about behavior (and science) than you think. Remember the classical conditioning experiment—Pavlov’s dog—in which the following occurs:


1. Trigger: Bell rings.
2. Behavior (or action): Dog salivates.
3. Reinforcement: Dog receives treats.*
*Once established, reinforcement is no longer needed to make the dog salivate.

What’s important to note is that in the experiment, the desired behavior is specific. For traditional change management, we build our activities, deliverables, and measurements around our project, but their specific value to the project’s distinct goals, ROI, benefits, or outcomes is not always clear. That’s like throwing darts at a dartboard and scoring—no matter where the darts hit the board—the same number of points.

To apply behavior to workplace change management, start by identifying actions that support the project’s distinct goals, ROI, benefits, or outcomes. Build change activities, deliverables, and measurements around those actions. This more-targeted approach to change management aims to provide the highest value.


Use It All, But Stress Reinforcement

In classical conditioning, each step is important to create the cycle of behavior. To build the desired cycle in the workplace, first trigger the specific desired behaviors. When communicating about change to create awareness, encourage enthusiasm, or create curiosity, highlight those particular behaviors. Communication from leaders and training should also focus on these behaviors. Everyone aims for the highest value success target on the dartboard—the center.

Now, consider how different the outcome of the experiment might have been if step three—reinforcement—didn’t exist. The cycle would not have repeated. Reinforcement is critical to the experiment, and it is also crucial to change behaviors. In fact, many behavioral science studies show that the majority of sustainable change is dependent on reinforcement.

The best encouragement for employees’ behavior change comes from their leaders. Support leaders drive their teams through change by coaching them on the cycle of behavior and reinforcement’s vital role. Behavior change—like darts—is not always easy, but with effort and practice, we can learn to hit the target.

For a deeper dive, check out my session during the ATD 2022 International Conference & EXPO, “Behave Yourself! Use Behavior to Accelerate Change."

About the Author

Michelle Yanahan, principal of ChangeFit 360, is a passionate organizational change management thought leader with proven expertise in programs that grow organizational change management as a business competency. Michelle has more than 18 years of business experience, holds a master’s degree in organizational behavior (as well as several change management certifications), and has been a featured presenter for many professional organizations, including ACMP, PMI, and SHRM.

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